I don’t listen to much rap or hip-hop music and over the years have only observed from afar the popular and critical acclaim for such artists as Jay-Z, 2Pac, Nas, Dr. Dre, Public Enemy, and Kanye West. My musical preferences are unapologetically guitar-centered, from acoustic Americana to punk and everything in between. So even the most intense adulation over hip-hop and rap stars hasn’t sufficiently stirred my curiosity to prompt me to purchase one of their records . . . until now.
Kanye West’s latest album, entitled My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has been making every 2010 top ten list I’ve seen, including those at Pitchfork, Amazon.com, and EW.com. It was chosen as album of the year on other lists such as Rolling Stone. And despite its often vulgar lyrical content, even Christianity Today reviewed MBDTF. So why all the excitement? I decided to check it out for myself and bought the album last week. It only took one trip through (at almost 70 minutes in length) to see what the fuss was about. In short, this is beautiful music—richly orchestrated, melodically multi-layered, and full of compelling vocal and instrumental performances by West and his many guests, who include Jay-Z, Bon Iver, and Elton John. The album is just as bold and creative lyrically, featuring sharp social commentary and witty cultural observations. In fact, some of the songs had me laughing out loud.
But there’s just one problem. MBDTF is morally repugnant. Aside from the scores of F-bombs, N-bombs, and profane phrases, West’s well-known arrogance is on full display, as are endorsements of self-indulgence, violence, misogyny, and drug and alcohol abuse (at one point West exultantly proclaims “I’ve been drinking, and now I’m driving!”). On top of this, the album is theologically confused, alternately praising Allah and Jesus, and declaring, “if we die in each others’ arms, we’ll still get laid in the afterlife” (“Lost in the World”). Elsewhere, West confesses, “We love Jesus but you done learned a lot from Satan… We ain’t married but tonight I need some consummation… May the Lord forgive us. May the gods be with us” (a line eerily repeated over a sensual 1970s R&B looped sample in “Devil in a New Dress”).
So what do you call a work of art that is aesthetically excellent but morally and spiritually subversive? Amy and I use the phrase “dangerous beauty” to describe such works, and I would say that MBDTF is a paradigm case of this. Judging by the album title, I wonder if Mr. West himself wouldn’t agree.